SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Google “Goal Setting,” and this is the first thing that comes up. It is the standard for how everyone from your boss to your personal trainer will tell you to plan for the next great thing.
SMART goals reinforce the mindset that success is in the destination, not the journey. They ask you to limit your dreams to a specific, quantifiable target in the future.
The problem is that we live in an uncertain world — no one knows what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next month. The last few years have proven this to be true more than ever, but really…hasn’t it always been the case?
A year ago, would you have predicted where you would be today? Do you believe the same things? Do you have the same goals and the same problems? Do you spend your time with the same people?
Most business strategists and self-help gurus promote the idea of big goals, strategic plans, and long-term thinking. The thing is, those plans and goals aren’t going to help you when things change, and you have to adjust quickly.
To survive (and, dare I say, thrive), you need to plan for the unplannable and make yourself antifragile.
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Instead of using static SMART goals to plan for a scenario that might be irrelevant in six months (or even tomorrow), use these strategies to create a system that allows you to create goals that actually mean something and a more resilient life.
Take a moment to clarify where you are now, who you are, and what you value. What are your strengths and weaknesses? This is your starting place around which everything should be organized, at least for now.
The question is simple, but the answer isn’t because most of us never spend the time to really think about it. Ask yourself, who am I?
Don’t get stuck on here. The person you are today most likely won’t be who you are next year. You just have to know who you are now in order to have a foundation to start from.
Most people think they know what they want but don’t do the hard work of identifying their desires. This leads to meaningless “goals” that have nothing to do with what we really want, which leads to lifetimes of following dreams that are not our own.
OG hustler Napoleon Hill calls this Your Definite Chief Aim, which is one of the centerpieces of his philosophy around manifesting your desires.
“Wishing will not bring riches. But desiring riches with a state of mind that becomes an obsession, then planning definite ways and means to acquire riches, and backing those plans with persistence which does not recognize failure, will bring riches.”
- Napoleon Hill
While Your Definite Chief Aim does not have to be about riches in the literal sense, it does need to resonate in your core as something you cannot live without—something you can’t not do.
Most people do not have this kind of single-minded focus, this obsession. That’s not because people are inherently lazy or unmotivated; it’s because we’re conditioned by societal mindsets around desire.
Setting goals should be an exercise in defining what success looks like overall, not limiting yourself to that definition of success at a specific moment in the future.
Let’s face it, things change. In reality, that is the only thing you can be certain of. So why build goals with deadlines and numbers that don’t actually push you toward what is the best thing for you in this moment?
Instead, build meaningful goals that will help you now instead of forecasting the next best thing.
Here’s how to do that:
Often we don’t know exactly what we want to strive for until we go through a process of defining it. Using qualitative goals allows you to have something to aim for while honoring that you’re not going to be the same person or business next month or next year.
If you make $18K monthly and work 35 hours, does that mean you failed? If you launch one new product and take on four new clients, did that also diversify your income? If you lose 50 lbs. but still feel like crap, have you achieved your goal? Give yourself the flexibility to aim higher but not be confined by numbers for the sake of numbers.
Achievable is great but seriously, aim for the stars. Don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible at this moment because it is only a moment. Circumstances change constantly. Make that ambitious (qualitative) goal, map out a few ways you could get there, and then explore until you find the right path. Chances are you’ll find other options along the way that you never even thought of that end up getting you where you want to go.
Make sure your goals are relevant to who you are and where you are now. While keeping in mind that who you are today is not where you’ll be tomorrow. Relevancy is iterative. You should always have a north star and orient around it, but that north star might move in the sky over time. What’s relevant to you in your 20s will likely be irrelevant in your 40s. Your “why” will change as your life does.
The truth is, most of us set SMART goals, whether for our work or life, and then put them on a shelf where we revisit them at new year’s or our annual review, and a) feel guilty about our lack of progress, b) see that we’ve blown them out of the water, or c) find that they’re no longer relevant.
You don’t have to plan out the next five years of your life right now; get clear on what you think you want that to look like and what progress looks like at this moment. Reinforce your qualitative goals with quantitative timelines (AKA, actual dates). Do this in short cycles so that you have time to see progress and then adjust as things change because they will.
I’m not saying don’t save for retirement, put money in your kid’s college fund, or take out a 30-year mortgage; I’m saying make the majority of your plans shorter-term to balance out the inherent instability of long-term strategies.
Planning in shorter cycles will make your plans more effective because you’ll be able to adjust as you go with new information you didn’t have before. Instead of saying you’ll publish a book in five years, decide to start writing a chapter each month. Maybe those chapters will turn into a blog or a podcast. Maybe you’ll decide that you don’t want to write a book. Maybe you’ll end up writing about something completely different. Maybe you hate writing and don’t realize that until you start doing it.
This goes back to qualitative vs. quantitative goals. Don’t decide you’re going to “write a book,” decide you’re going to synthesize your ideas and get them out in the world. Then, if it turns into a blog or a podcast, you don’t fail, you succeed in a different way.
Plan your life and goals in short cycles so you can do what you want to do now and not marry yourself to some theoretical definition of success in the future.
Goals and plans are only as good as the systems you’ve built to revisit them and adjust accordingly. The person making that five-year plan today is not the same person who will be living that plan in five years. Create a system for checking in on your structures regularly. Get a new baseline and update that framework so that it is always reflective of your circumstances and context at the time.
You know the saying, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. And yet, society wants us to believe that getting all of our income from one source is somehow “secure.” Spread out your risk and dependence however you can—more clients, more income streams, more investments, more people to rely on – when one fails (and it will), you’ll have others waiting in the wings.
This rule goes so much farther than money and material goods. You also want to diversify your ideas and not get stuck in one definition of what’s true, right, or possible. Give yourself the freedom of an open mind—diversify your sources of information, explore divergent opinions, have real-life conversations with people who don’t “think like you.”
Live your life now, not wait for your “five-year plan” to manifest. The future is always uncertain; use that to your advantage instead of letting it destroy you.